How the Democrats Were Lost | Sarah Stook
The 2016 US Presidential Election, the 58th of its kind was nothing short of exciting. With a colourful array of candidates, quick quips, harsh insults and insane policy being thrown around, even those disinterested in politics found it to be an exciting election cycle.
The candidates themselves were what made it. Even minor candidates such as Dr. Jill Stein and Gary Johnson made headlines, with the infamous ‘Aleppo’ comment becoming a viral sensation as voters mocked Johnson’s apparent lack of knowledge on important world events. When the main candidates were picked, it was easy to see that it would be a turbulent ride. Hillary Clinton has been a permanent fixture in US politics for years, a Democratic heavyweight who can add First Lady Senator, and Secretary of State to her resume. Eight years previously, she was close to becoming the Democratic candidate, but lost to charismatic outsider Barack Obama. Arguably one of the most politically experienced candidates of all time; it came as little shock to the world when she announced her candidacy in April 2015. It had been outright expected. Though she got stiffer competition than she expected in the form of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, she managed to get through it all. Whilst she is a somewhat polarising figure, her stature as the first female Presidential candidate for a major party won many feminist and liberal fans. Though she lagged behind Sanders in millennial support, the youth still supported her. Conservatives and the majority of the Republican Party, however, continued their dislike of her, as did many average Americans. A hugely polarising figure, it all depended on who was on the Republican side.
Enter Donald J Trump.
At first, no one really took the famous mogul too seriously. He’d announced candidacy before, and had supported both the Democrats and Reform Parties. This time, however, he was serious. Soon enough, Trump bankrolled a successful campaign, combining a forthright manner and new age of politics to surge past dynastic Jeb Bush and evangelical darling Ted Cruz. Trump more than took advantage of a new digital age, with his provocative tweets and slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ doing the rounds online, spreading his word. In July, Trump took the Cleveland stage at the Republican National Convention, and left it as their official nominee.
The political world wasn’t ready for him.
Hillary Clinton made many mistakes in the campaign- calling Trump supporters ‘deplorable’ as a start- but as a veteran politician, Clinton was far more polished and arguably presidential in her manner and campaign style. Clinton’s husband won two Presidential elections on the trot, whilst she won two Senate terms and was part of an electorally successful Obama administration. Trump, on the other hand, was quite the opposite. Almost a dream of right wing websites, Trump’s outspoken and rather un-PC nature raised eyebrows. Even the Republicans were divided on him, with more moderate members such as Senator Susan Collins and deep conservatives such as Marco Rubio risking their careers by speaking out against him. Across the world, there was horror. In the UK, a petition circulated the internet, begging that he not be permitted to visit. Muslim nations such as the UAE promised to boycott his business after inflammatory comments regarding a ban of Muslim migrants to the United States. Mexican officials decried his views on their emigrants, as well as the infamous ‘wall comment.’
In theory, Clinton should have walked it. A calm and seemingly dignified political stalwart up against a newbie with no bounds- it should’ve been textbook.
But she didn’t.
On November 8th, nearly everyone expected that the first female President would take to the White House. Polls gave her a 95% chance of winning. Everything was in place for a third Democratic term. Except, it didn’t happen. As the night went on, the map of the United States turned more red than blue. Essential swing state Ohio fell to Trump, with blue collar states and usual Dem states turning Republican for the first time in a number of years. Clinton won a decent plurality in the popular vote, but the Electoral College went for Trump. Eventually, she called Trump to concede defeat, and he emerged victorious, family surrounding him with huge smiles plastered upon her face.
As the Trump supporters cheered, the Clinton supporters wept. A quick news search will show images of mainly young people in tears, consoling one another as the very reality of the situation sunk in. The floors of huge spaces were littered with ‘I’m With Her’ badges and ‘I Voted’ stickers. One can only image how long it would take to clear up such hurt.
So why did it happen?
It is well known in America that you essentially vote for the person over the party, opposite to the UK tradition of electing a party. In this case, however, it was a rejection of both the Clinton brand and the Democrats in general. The party was poised for victory, so where did it go wrong? Clinton’s loss has led to a new low for the Democrats, who have lost control of all major political branches. In this article, we will take a look at what went wrong.
Firstly, the election is an interesting one to look at. Whilst the Republican Party had a plethora of candidates- from senators such as Rubio and Cruz, to non-politicos such as Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson, the Democratic field was practically barren. Martin O’Malley quit early in the race, leaving Clinton and Sanders.
If Trump was the Republican outsider, Sanders was his Democratic mirror. A former Independent from the northern state of Maine, Sanders was a socialist at core, who dreamed of affordable or even free college tuition and a single payer healthcare system amongst others. Critical of war, a friend to the LGBTS and an advocate for abortion choice, Sanders was further left than Clinton. Almost an American Jeremy Corbyn (he endorsed him as PM only this year), Sanders swept up support from the young, the very liberal and those disenchanted with mainstream democrats such as Clinton. This was a shock to the Democratic establishment, most of whom had put their faith in Clinton. Sanders challenged the status quo, decrying inequality at any turn. The battle was a lot closer than anyone imagined, with Sanders winning a commendable amount of states, turning the primaries into a two-horse race. Unfortunately for Sanders, the party machine went in favour of Clinton, who ultimately captured the Democratic vote.
Many believe that Sanders could have genuinely challenged Trump. With opposite ideologies and strong legions of fans, it could have been a much tighter race. Where Trump attracted the rust belt, nationalists, protectionists and the politically homeless, Sanders was a friend of the young, the liberals, the first time voters and the socialists. Both attracted the exhausted voter.
As the election roared on, Clinton and the Democrats struggled with one basic thing- a message.
As Trump’s statements got more and more controversial, the Democrats eventually had no message that wasn’t ‘vote for us- we’re not Trump.’ The party genuinely had a chance to show what kind of country they wanted. If we momentarily cross the pond, we can compare this to the 2017 election. Theresa May and the Conservatives emphasised a strong government with a focus on Brexit and the economy, whilst Jeremy Corbyn and Labour focused on social equality and fairness both in economy and society. These messages, though differing, are still messages. A year earlier, and the Democrats hadn’t quite cracked that. Though not all UK parties will rally around their leaders, it is definitely the case in the states, due to parties not having a technical leader, as well as their ability to choose their representatives. Therefore, the Democrats struggled to find a way to put their message across.
At the end of the day, though the electorate was electing a President, they were also electing a party; though not in the way they do at midterms. With Hillary, there were two policy angles at play.
First was that of a feminist liberal, a typical Democrat who helps those who need it, those who need a step up in life because they weren’t born with certain advantage like wealth. Whilst that is all is not unusual for the Party, it wasn’t exactly a change. Those who are pro-choice or want more taxes on the richest of society will generally vote for the Democrats, as they align with their views. What the Democrats didn’t offer was change. Why should swing voters or the undecided vote for the usual establishment view? For many, Clinton would be a continuation of the Obama years- she herself tied herself to the legacy, such as endorsing Obamacare, a highly polarising piece of legislation. Clinton was the status quo in one walking, talking package. The Democrats struggled to rebrand one of the most famous brands in America. Much as Bill was the smooth-talking, charismatic leader, Hillary was the outspoken and intelligent wife, believed to be dealing with his affairs in exchange for power. She’d grown from being the wife of a leader to being one, but that didn’t mean she was any more attractive to the floating voter. Voters needed a reason to distinguish Clinton from the typical politician, but unfortunately, she is the politican.
Secondly, there is the problem that the Democrats themselves have faced- being the so-called ‘anti-Trump.’ Whilst Trump is seemingly softer on some issues- such as the transgender toilet debate- he is still a policy opposite in many respects, such as illegal immigration and foreign policy. Policy wise, debate is not a surprise, but the Democrats seemed to focus on being against the person. They used feminist Clinton against Trump, a man who is seen as sexist, having said many controversial things about women (such as the infamous tape). Popular amongst certain minorities, they also used Clinton against Trump, who is more outspoken on racial issues and US immigration policy. In the end, their card was that Clinton wasn’t Trump. This in itself was a rather inefficient method. Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio- they’d all used that ‘I’m not Trump’ card during the primaries, which hadn’t served them well.
Both segue into a very important point- Hillary Clinton is not liked.
In certain demographics, Clinton is almost revered. She is respected for her experience and views by others, if not liked. Mostly, she is just not liked. Whether it’s Republicans who disagree with her politics, Democrats who view her as poisonous or those inbetween, Clinton is a more damaged brand than the Bush family. Trump did not beat Clinton in the popular vote, but many believe that absolutely anyone else could have beaten her because of her polarised position. Trump had more than his share of scandals, but Clinton had two killers- the emails and Benghazi. The e-mails showed a level of incompetence not wanted in a future President, and gave off the impression that Clinton, after all of these years in high office, was a security risk. Worse still was Benghazi, a foreign policy mishap of epic proportions. Clinton refused blame for a long time, which is especially bad considering four Americans were killed. This breach of American sovereignty in a highly sensitive area of the world caused scandal, and may have contributed to Clinton deciding not to seek a second term as Secretary of State.
There’s also the Clinton person. Rumours had floated about her demeanour when she’s not in front of cameras. Secret Service personnel reported her being a horror, with being sent on her detail considered a punishment. Others have stated that Clinton pays her female staffers less. These have not been confirmed, but everyone wants their leader to be a good person. Trump is certainly not polite and well-mannered, but Trump has never once faked his persona. Clinton is often considered cold and not particularly amiable, her smile for babies being apparently forced. The measure of a leader is often seen by the wish of the voter to have a beer with them. Clinton is not that person, it seems. Furthermore, she’s a dynasty. Jeb Bush probably lost because of that, considering how unpopular his father and brother were at certain points of their administration. America was clearly tired of the same old faces, and that showed.
Since the election, Clinton has assured the nation that she does not seek to run for office. The former Secretary of State has not shied away from criticising Trump, but has tended not to focus on policy, putting her energy into being a private citizen for the first time in many years. Clinton will always be a Democratic machine, but the activist will not be running in their name again.
With Trump having record low approval ratings, the Democrats have the chance to spring into action. The Republicans hold the executive, legislative and judicial branches, as well as the majority of governorships in the USA, wielding unprecedented power (for them). In 2018, there will be the midterms in which all the House of Representative seats will be up for grabs, along with a majority of governor positions and a third of Senate seats. As Harold Wilson once said ‘a week is a long time in politics,’ and a year is even longer. Brexit was not believed to be a reality, neither was Trump’s success, so it would be foolish to speculate. This is the opportunity that the Democrats need to take.
They need to get their act together.
Firstly, they need a platform, as detailed in the article. One opportunity is Obamacare. The Republicans are nearly all united in opposition, with many wanting to repeal and replace. At the time of writing, the Senate is waiting to vote on its repeal, Congress having given its assent. Whilst a polarising piece of legislation, Obamacare has achieved some popularity in widening coverage, and mandating amendments such as insurers having to take on those with pre-existing conditions. No American wants to die because they don’t have money, or lose all of it so that they don’t. As the Republicans clamber to find an alternative that will appease everyone, the Democrats need to band together in order to make it work. In the UK, the NHS is basically untouchable. In the US, healthcare is probably one of the most defining issues, as it has been in a way Brits cannot understand. That’s how they can make it work for them.
They also need to reach out to the disenchanted. Brexit did that- the voter turnout was higher than any general election, with a high number of first-time voters. The disenchanted don’t want the same thing, that’s what makes them disenchanted. Secondly, they need to reach out to who should be their core voters. The rust belt swung to the Republicans, usually solid, working-class Democrats who felt left out by the Obama administration. Clinton shot herself in the foot by calling Trump supporters ‘a basket of deplorables.’ Insulting the electorate is a dangerous and frankly insulting move, and it’s what cost Clinton support. Left out voters often vote against the status quo- again, see Brexit. No longer are the Democrats the party of the working class.
Democrats need to band together. They can encompass moderate and liberal views, but they need to branch out to swing voters and dilute Republicans, those who can be persuaded.
Their key problem at the moment is a person problem.
Whilst Republicans have all the names- Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Kelly Ayotte, the Democrats do not.
Let’s talk Democrats for a second. First of all, we have Elizabeth Warren. Nicknamed ‘Pocahontas’ for her apparent Native heritage. A hero of the working and middle classes, Warren is a self-proclaimed champion of the underdog, fighting corporate injustice and busting Wall Street at every turn. A few years ago, she could have had a shot. Unfortunately, her increasing outspokenness and apparent hypocrisy- like the Harvard fee scandal- have somewhat diminished her bright star. Probably the most notable Democrat of the moment, and probably the most notable woman apart from Clinton, her position had made her vulnerable.
A few other names spring to mind. Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi made headlines after becoming first female Speaker of the House. Another strong woman with a tough and often admirable attitude, Pelosi is a notable one. The right have capitalised on this, and Pelosi is increasingly portrayed as out of touch and perhaps unstable. In her late 70’s, she is often targeted for being past her prime, something that was levelled at Biden and Sanders in the Democratic corner, and even Trump on the red side.
With the names unpopular, we must delve deeper. In 2020, perhaps we could have a case of Obama- an unknown power shows their political stripes and succeeds against odds. Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark, and current Senator for New Jersey, represents the youth of the party- slightly older than Obama was when he became President, but also charismatic. Tammy Duckworth, respected as a veteran, and also notable for being a double amputee, is another name on the list, but she is far too new to consider such a high job. There is no doubt talent in the Democratic party- as there is in any political party, but they lack the push factor.
The Democrats can revive themselves, but it’ll take a lot to pull off a Lazarus. Sadly, Franklin D Roosevelt’s party seems to have lost its way in the new age. 2016 was a bit of an insane year, but that gives them no excuse to fall in the way that they did. They are no longer in control. Clinton won the popular vote, but she didn’t win the popular heart. She may not have been everyone’s candidate, but she was the Democrat’s candidate.
2018 could provide them a fresh opportunity, but the wounds from 2016 are still fresh, and it’ll be a long time before those scars will heal.